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Development evolves; they adapt

Dozens of South Florida monkeys soon may find condominiums joining their non-native homeland.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published January 27, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
A monkey carries a piece of fruit as it scurries across a chain-link fence in the Motel 6 parking lot in Dania Beach recently. Two groups of vervet monkeys live on a 19-acre tract in Dania Beach.

DANIA BEACH - For decades, dozens of green monkeys have lived on a 19-acre thicket just past Weiner's Mobile Home Park about a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.

How they got here is a mystery.

Some say the monkeys escaped the set of a Tarzan TV show. Others say they fled a research facility. The dominant theory: They are escapees from a roadside attraction that went out of business.

Whatever their origins, they have become something of a tourist attraction and minor local celebrities. Camera-toting tourists feed them, though some local residents complain when they wind up in their back yards.

But the future of the Dania Beach monkeys is suddenly clouded by the usual suspect: development.

A two-tower, 288-condominium complex is in the works for their little monkey paradise.

The monkeys live a mile from the beach on a stretch of undeveloped land - a rarity here in fast-growing Broward County - where waterfront condos sprout like mushrooms and sell for top dollar.

The developer could not be reached, but city officials say the condos probably won't have much effect on the free-ranging monkeys. Only 3.5 acres will be developed, they say, and the mangroves will be untouched.

The project still has to be approved by the city's planning and zoning department, and officials say a wildlife study will be completed before construction starts.

But monkey lovers are worried.

"They're here, they've been here and they should be allowed to stay," said Scott Schultz, a 35-year-old newspaper advertising salesman and dedicated monkey fan.

* * *

Skip Trubey, an inspector for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, says two distinct troops of vervet monkeys live in the 19 acres developers are looking at.

Also called green monkeys because their fur has a greenish-brown sheen, they are about size of a 20-pound dog. The males are larger and more aggressive than the females and have 2-inch long teeth like a wolf. All the vervets have long, brown tails and are natives of the African savannah.

Trubey is unsure how many Dania Beach monkeys there are, but he estimates up to 100.

"We don't have a clue where they came from," said Trubey. The monkeys have been here since the 1950s, he said, and are several generations old.

Vervets live in family-like social structures, have friends and eat everything from leaves to crabs. Each troupe is run by a dominant female.

They are also thought to be very intelligent. Fish and Wildlife officers say the monkeys seem to recognize their uniforms and will scamper away if they see a law officer nearby.

No matter how smart they are, Florida considers them a non-native, invasive species and afford them none of the protection of, say, alligators.

Only a few other colonies of monkeys exist in Florida, most notably in Silver Springs, near Ocala, where free-ranging rhesus macaques live near the Silver River, and on an island near Homosassa.

Like the Dania Beach monkeys, the Silver River primates are outlaws, without state or federal protection. But unlike Dania Beach, the monkeys in Silver Springs live on state land that will never be developed.

But no law can stop a developer from building on monkey habitat, Trubey said.

"We don't protect them," said Trubey.

* * *

Officials receive only a few complaints about the monkeys, mostly when they wind up in a suburban yard.

"They're more of a tourist attraction than anything else," said Dania Beach City Manager Ivan Pato. "We would oppose any eradication of the monkeys."

About a decade ago, he said, city officials pondered whether to send all the monkeys to a research facility in Texas. That idea was nixed.

Mostly, the monkeys shy away from people.

But they have gotten used to the sound of cars - one monkey didn't look up from eating a grapefruit when a truck rumbled through the parking lot of the adjacent Motel 6 one day last week. Another monkey paused from eating some leaves to scowl at a trio of college students pointing a camera at him.

Many look forward to free food.

Sisters Freda Gallagher and Helen Notar drive up from North Miami to watch the monkeys in the motel parking lot. They bring fruit for the monkeys and Cheez Doodles for themselves.

On a recent day, the two parked in back of the motel, hurled some fruit on the ground and watched as the monkeys scampered out of the brush.

"Do you see that one in the tree, eating the apple?" said Notar, pointing to a black-faced, bearded monkey who was sitting upright on a tree limb, like a person on a bar stool. "He's adorable."

The sisters say they are willing to risk a $500 fine for feeding the primates.

"I love monkeys," said Notar, a semi-retired social science researcher.

* * *

Pato said the proposed condos aren't the only threat to the monkeys.

The monkeys' range stretches from Dania Beach to Fort Lauderdale International Airport. A proposed airport expansion project is more likely to displace the monkeys; there are plans in the works to double the size of the airport. In fact, Pato said, some monkeys were relocated in 1994 when some runways were extended.

There is also talk of expanding the nearby Port Everglades seaport, which also could affect the monkey population, he said.

Still, he vows to try to keep the monkeys in Dania Beach. Or move them to a zoo or wildlife preserve.

But Pato thinks the monkeys will survive, right here in South Florida.

"They have adapted to everything so far," he said. "Cars, airplanes, water, boats, people. It's amazing when you think about it."

- Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 27, 2004, 01:00:50]


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